Life After Beth (2014)
Written & Directed by Jeff Baena
Beth has died and her grieving boyfriend, Zach is stuck in a permanent depression. He is hanging out with her parents, Maury and Geenie trying to revive what it felt like for his late love to be alive. And then out of nowhere, Beth’s parents box out Zach, refusing to answer the door or his phone calls. He eventually busts in and finds Beth, alive and well, but a little confused about where she has been. Zach wants to start their relationship back up, but Maury and Geenie would prefer to keep her locked up in the house. As time goes on, Zach learns that the Beth that came back may not be precisely in the best of shape.
This film did something I never thought would happen. It made me actually enjoy a performance by Dane DeHaan. I usually find DeHaan to be a grating presence. Think of his roles in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and A Cure for Wellness. Hollywood seems to want to make this young man a lead actor in the vein of any sort of generic, pretty boy, but this type of character doesn’t fit DeHaan in any sense. In Life After Beth, he is tasked with playing a neurotic, awkward person and this is such a more natural role. Director Baena is also a fan of letting his actors improv, and the older supporting cast is playing to their strengths in that respect (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines). DeHaan is also surprisingly good at this and delivers some genuinely funny moments.
I personally have zombie fatigue at this point so anytime they come up as the focal point of a film, I immediately feel myself in a place of low expectations. What Life After Beth has going for it is that Jeff Baena is a very smart comedic writer. He was one of the writers of I Heart Huckabees, a personal favorite film of mine which is admittedly a messy film regarding structure. Life After Beth doesn’t reach the level of strangeness that Huckabees does, instead of becoming sort of conventional. The way Zach and Beth’s story is resolved will not surprise any viewer, and the entire plot feels surprisingly unsurprising. Aubrey Plaza is playing the hell out of her role as Beth and manages to work outside the April persona most films place her in. However, all her force can’t overcome the film’s weaknesses.
There is a bit of self-awareness I found genuinely funny. Early on Zach stumbles upon the housekeeper storming out while Beth’s dad tries to reason with her. Later, he assumes that these zombies possibly rose from the dead through some sort of Haitian voodoo on the part of the housekeeper, an idea that is remarked upon by some characters as being racist. Even in the midst of this zombie apocalypse, they are still sensitive to racial insensitivity. Baena also attempts some silly twists on the zombie tropes: the dead like to live in attics and are covering the walls with dirt to simulate their graves. The zombies reach an almost orgasmic state when hearing easy listening/adult contemporary jazz. However, the film cannot become greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a fun distraction but doesn’t really deliver anything new to a genre already worn down.